When barely a dozen protesters tried to disrupt a drag queen story-time event at Coquitlam’s public library on Saturday, they were greeted by hundreds of flag-waving, singing, cheering supporters who drowned them out and pushed them back.
Standing at the front, wearing knee-high rainbow socks and a rainbow scarf, shouting at the top of her lungs, was B.C.’s minister of post-secondary education.
Selina Robinson is not even five feet tall, but she was one of the loudest people on the line.
“I went because it’s just the right thing to do,” she said. “I just think about how important it is that we stand up for others. When you are being attacked, it can be hard to find your voice.”
Robinson, who is the local MLA for Coquitlam-Maillardville, gathered up her husband and adult son and stood face-to-face with the small group of protesters denouncing Conni Smudge, the drag queen who was inside reading stories to a packed audience of almost 200 children and families.
The protesters claimed the event was “grooming” children and sexually abusing them. After a few initial skirmishes, they were quickly drowned out by the large crowd of LGBTQ2S+ advocates, whose voices in support of rights, tolerance and love were much louder.
“The counter-protesters came with huge powerful boomboxes, and the music selection was Queen and Cyndi Lauper, and all the music that would make the haters go ballistic,” said Robinson.
“They played it really loud. So it became a street party, because as a group we were able to push the haters back onto a small little sidewalk.”
At one point, an older woman who looked to be in her 70s, began yelling “shame on you, you are groomers, you are hurting children” to Robinson, the minister said.
“I just kept saying, ‘I love you. I’m sorry you feel this way, I love you,’” said Robinson. “It was making her batshit crazy. But I felt so sorry for this woman.”
Few who know Robinson from her role in B.C. politics would be surprised to hear she spent her weekend fighting against hate – and winning.
The four-term MLA has spent almost a decade at the legislature, carving out a space as both a fierce partisan advocate for the BC NDP, and someone who routinely tries to show the human side of politics. She frequently walks around the building reminding people to be positive and happy.
It doesn’t always work (some political columnists are noted curmudgeons), but more often than not she succeeds in getting people to pause and smile.
There is also another side to the 58-year-old cabinet minister. She calls it her “mama bear” mode, where she chooses to step up into the fight against those who are much bigger and louder than her, so that others don’t have to.
That was on full display outside the Coquitlam public library as well. Robinson’s 33-year-old son Aaron, who is gay, stood beside his mother in the counter-protest line.
“I was quite a bit of a mama bear, especially when my son would get into a bit of a shouting match with someone, and so I’d get in there and bark at the person,” she said.
“And then he would say, ‘Nobody is going after my mom,’ and he’d get in there. And we’d go back and forth. It was a family event for us.”
She’d never gone to a protest with her son before. At one point, they bumped into a teacher from a local high school who mentioned how large the school’s gay-straight alliance club – where students work to create a safe and accepting environment for people of all sexualities – had become.
“My son just looked at me and he burst into tears,” said Robinson. “Because there wasn’t a gay-straight alliance when he was at school. He didn’t come out to us until the week after graduation, because he didn’t feel safe in school.
“He couldn’t stop crying because he was just so relieved the next generation behind him didn’t have to go through what he did. It was tears of relief.”
The fight at the library did not, however, end there.
Robinson spent hours of the weekend on social media, taking on a swarm of (mainly American) far-right, anti-gay trolls.
She did so with surprising good humour – responding to claims she was a “groomer” by describing her personal grooming routine of shampoo and soap. When one man called her a “hoor,” she politely informed him of his deficiency in the area of spelling.
“I did it in person because I felt like I needed to protect people, so I’m doing it online,” she said.
In the end, the counter-protesters beat back the hate speech at the library and the drag queen story-time event was largely a success. But it came at a cost.
“There were a couple of heartbreaking moments where there were people I know who are gay, lesbian, queer, who were in tears,” said Robinson. “And my heart broke for them. And I thought, you shouldn’t have to bear witness to this. We need to make sure we have more cis-gendered allies.”
Which is a reminder for others, who aren’t directly under attack at such events, to step up and carry some of the load for those whose human rights are being threatened.
Rather than starting her political work week exhausted by the weekend effort, Robinson said she’s invigorated.
“I have to tell you, it does feel good to stand up for something and have such clarity and take the position and own it – to say you are wrong and I’m right, and then fight for it.”
Rob Shaw has spent more than 14 years covering B.C. politics, now reporting for CHEK News and writing for Glacier Media. He is the co-author of the national bestselling book A Matter of Confidence, and a regular guest on CBC Radio.